Cutting to the Core
Parshat Metzora describes the consequences of negative speech, loshon hara.
"Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me." Whoever made that one up is either naive or deaf. While we might tell our children not to be bothered, the reality is that words hurt a great deal more than sticks and stones. The pain caused by sticks and stones is temporary; the pain caused by words can be eternal.
When someone hits you, it is a very crude and superficial expression of contempt for your humanity. What he is saying, in effect, is that you are an object, not a person. There is a sense of violation. Words, however, can express that contempt infinitely more eloquently and thus penetrate much deeper. When you talk badly about another person, it can be much more personal and biting, and cut to the core of his individuality. Ouch.
Beyond this, the Sages say that whoever speaks loshon hara denies God Himself. It is, to be sure, an indefensible action to talk badly about a fellow human being, but to say that one who does so denies God seems a little harsh. Here is an explanation that I once heard from one of my students.
Every human being is made in the image of the God. No one of us is inherently any more or less Godly than anyone else. We are Godly no matter what we do. The question is only whether we will act in a Godly fashion or not. The Jewish concept is that although a person may 'do' bad, his or her essence 'is' still good. When one recognizes this, one is able to appreciate the goodness, the greatness and almost unlimited potential of those around us.
At the same time, all of us Godly human beings make mistakes. Yes, we are God-ly, but we are not God. And only God is perfect.
When one speaks loshon hara, one is focusing on the bad that people do. God created a world of Godly and elevated souls and we, in our minds and with our words, turn it into a world of small and petty people. We are looking at God's most precious creation, a human being, created in his image, and not even noticing that goodness.
If we wish to see God in those around us, He is always there to be seen. But equally, if we want to ignore God, we will see the bad and end up speaking loshon hara.
When one puts it into that perspective, it becomes obvious why there are few things in Judaism that are considered worse than talking badly about another person. Next time you are tempted to do so, take a moment to consider how unbecoming it is for a dignified soul to stoop to such depths. It simply doesn't pay.